Few Americans know North Korea better than Bill Richardson, but the former New Mexico governor was just as shocked as you and me when he learned last week of President Donald Trump’s plans to sit down face-to-face with the Hermit Kingdom’s president, Kim Jong Un, to talk nuclear weapons.
Richardson, an ex-United Nations ambassador and sometime diplomatic troubleshooter for the U.S. in North Korea, pronounced himself “flabbergasted” on CNN shortly after a hastily arranged announcement by the South Koreans on the White House driveway Thursday night. Moments later in a telephone interview with me, Richardson said the news came as a very pleasant surprise.
“I’m 95 percent against what President Trump does in domestic and foreign policy,” the one-time Democratic presidential candidate said. “But I’m going to give him credit for this very bold and potentially important breakthrough.”
Richardson has experience negotiating with Kim Jong Il – the late father of the current North Korean president. He has never met the son. But Richardson has kept in touch with members of the North Korean government through his contacts at the U.N., and he knows Kim Jong Un is wily and unpredictable.
Richardson said Trump – or at least his foreign policy team – better do some homework and make sure the big summit doesn’t just turn into a prestige-building exercise for the North Koreans.
“I think it’s important that he prepare properly and that we have a strategy for what our objectives are,” Richardson said. “We have to be careful of falling into a trap. Kim Jong Un (believed to be only in his early to mid-30s) has been underestimated and he has an agenda.”
Richardson said it’s laughable to think Kim would unilaterally disarm a nuclear arsenal it has taken North Korea decades to achieve. And he doubts there will be any major breakthroughs during the meeting between the two unpredictable and notoriously hot-headed leaders. But the tough-talking Trump has created an opportunity to push a U.S. agenda in North Korea that eluded former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“President Trump’s first objective should be to completely freeze their missile activity that would include a nuclear warhead potentially reaching the mainland and U.S. territories like Guam, Alaska and Hawaii,” Richardson said, suggesting that site inspections could be a part of such a deal. “They are not going to disarm – let’s be realistic. They’re not going to just fold. They are going to want a lot in return, but we can at least be setting a negotiating framework for a potential verifiable agreement. It has to be verified or it’s not worth it, and we are a long ways away from that.”
Richardson suggested Trump press for the return of U.S. soldiers’ remains held by the communist country since the Korean War ended in 1953. And he noted that three Americans remain imprisoned in North Korea’s brutal justice system. That’s an urgent concern considering the fate of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was brutalized, and effectively murdered, by the regime in captivity just last year.
Richardson, who wrote a book on negotiating called “How to Sweet Talk a Shark” five years ago, said both leaders have a chance to get something from the suddenly highly anticipated meeting at a still-to-be determined location in May.
“Part of the reason (Kim) is moving toward diplomacy, I think, is I’ve heard from North Korea that the extended sanctions have hurt him quite a bit,” Richardson said. “And in the end, I don’t think he wants a military conflict with the United States. He would lose.”
But the North Korean leader has gotten the United States’ attention. Boasting strides in nuclear weapons technology that seemed far-fetched a decade ago, Kim will bargain from a new position of power.
“He has reached the point militarily with missile and nuclear technology where they are a very awesome power,” Richardson said. “He’s reached the point where he feels his leverage is at his greatest right now. That’s when you start negotiating.”
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